Training autistic children vs training concert violinists

As a behavioral psychologist, I have been working with autistic children for more than 40 years, and as a former professional violinist, I have been working with my 12-year-old son on the violin since he was 3. The skills to be trained for autistic children are simple by comparison with normal development – how to brush teeth properly, pronounce and use simple functional words or sentences, greet people, get around in the community, etc. whereas the skills in learning to be a concert violinist, again by comparison with normal development like learning math or swimming, are exceedingly complex – developing a sharp ear for intonation, great sense of rhythm, left/right hand coordination, and of course musical expressions of feelings and tone colors.

It is fair to say that training autism and training concert violinists lie on opposite ends of the skill spectrum. Over the years, many autistic children learned those basic skills, and my son has become an accomplished violinist, winning prizes in competitions. A recent performance attests to his accomplishments.

But progress in either autistic children or my son has come with great trails and tribulations – planning, analyses, restructuring of the environment, vigilance, training consistency, daily prompting, physical stamina, and last but not least, contingent reward for good progress and learning. What makes both kinds of training ultimately taxing is that the internal motivation to learn and to retain the skills is not sufficient to maintain and expand the learning. I, or my staff in the case of autism, have to actively be involved in the learning, and as soon as such involvement is withdrawn, even for a brief period, regress occurs. For my autistic clients, learning to speak, to communicate, to be hygienic, or to become productive is hard work, and regrettably simply not interesting enough to warrant the hard drills and practice. For my son, although he has developed an ‘interest’ in playing the violin and listening to violin music, the motivation to practice scales or drill on a passage, inherently boring tasks, in order to produce beautiful music is not strong enough. But under my careful nurturing, consistent tutoring, feedback and rewards, he has done very well and is proud of his achievement. Learning to really play the violin well is as much of a hassle to my son as an autistic child learning to communicate (other than about basic needs).

I would define a child prodigy as one who not just has the facility to learn the task, but also the passion for the task. Many children indeed have the facility but not the passion. With passion, it is much easier to train and it requires much less support and involvement of the trainer, as the child is ‘naturally’ awed by the task at hand and will without prompting generate the necessary stamina to practice to produce the results.

I believe a sustained passion towards a specific thing or activity is inborn and is difficult to cultivate. A person with such a passion naturally will devote large trunk of time and effort to excel on it. The Fields Medal (equivalent to a Nobel in math) winner, Lars Ahlfors, dubbed ‘the boy who loved homework’, declared ” I hated sports. I also hated vacations and Sundays, for I had nothing to do on those days.”¹ Working on mathematical principles was his passion and source of pleasures. In a similar vein, the desire to learn to speak, to socialize or to be interested in one’s own environment is inborn for most children. We don’t have to actively train and reinforce for them to acquire language or social skills. Also along the same idea, my son never needs training or coaxing to play video games. If allowed, it will be day and night. It came ‘naturally’.

But can one train a passion or develop a consistent crave to engage in an activity (I don’t mean eating ice cream.)? The answer seems to be No again. I have, with my staff, attempted numerous ways to train autistic or Asperger people to be interested in other people or in their surroundings, and the results were dismal. We can teach them various social skills through intensive and systematic training, but we always need to be there to reinforce and encourage. The minute we let go, they let go with the skills and the desire to learn. Similarly, after nine years of intensive almost daily coaching and tutoring, and having mastered very sophisticated violin playing, my son still needs my prompting, feedback and reward to continue the progress on this very difficult instrument.

My inkling so far is that it is possible to teach a person complex (defined by their initial functioning level) skills using contingent reward/praise/encouragement, refined task analyses and behavioral techniques. But to foster real, sustained passion is tough. After nine years of violin training for my son, I am still waiting for that to happen in him…

¹Albers, D. and Alexanderson, G. Fascinating Mathematical People” Interviews and Memoirs.